Before wood carving for your first time, there are quite a few things that you need to know. In this article, we will cover the basics of everything that you need, to get started with wood carving.
If you have a teacher, some of these things will be provided or recommended depending on the preference of your instructor, however, if you are starting to wood carve by yourself, you can be sure to follow our recommendations.
Choose Your Style of Wood Carving
Wood carving is a fairly generalized term. There are a lot of different wood carving styles that all have very different characteristics. Before you jump into making your first wood carving project you should become familiar with the style that interests you the most.
So here are some types of wood carving to choose from:
- Chip Carving
- Relief carving
Whittling is the style of wood carving you most likely imagine in your head when you first think of wood carving. Whittling only uses non-motorized tools i.e. knives to create simple kinds of projects from wood.
Chip carving is a fun and very simple style of wood carving. It is easily picked up and although there is much to learn you can start creating decent projects very quickly.
Chip carving mostly chips off pieces of the wood on a plank or a wooden product such as a toolbox to decorate it with an ornament. With chip carving, you will not be creating any statues but instead, you get the unique experience of the 3D designs on wood.
Relief carving is a bit more difficult but a very artistic style of wood carving. It is done by carving out an image from a flat wooden panel creating a 3D effect.
These were the most basic styles of wood carving that you should know of. If you are want to read more about all of the existing styles of wood carving, click on All 9 Types of Carving to read our very entertaining article about it!
Tools You Will Need
While there are a thousand of tools that you can get to wood carve, the very minimum that you will need is:
- A wood carving knife
- Sharpening stone
When choosing a wood carving knife make sure you are going with the right one for the type of wood carving you are planning on doing. Whittling knives are very different to chip carving knives, and relief carving mostly requires different chisels and gouges also sometimes in a combination with a mallet.
A water stone is also not the only way you can sharpen your tools. There are also oil stones, diamond stones, and some other ways that you can sharpen your wood carving knife.
In the future, you may consider getting power carving tools to carve with a Dremel, however, this a different topic.
Choosing What To Carve
Your first project will depend on what style of wood carving you decided to try first, this section will be split into two sections, whittling projects, and chip carving projects.
Relief carving is very different from whittling and chip carving, but of the three, the one you should not try to be your first project ever is whittling. We recommend your first try chip carving or relief before whittling to get more familiar with wood carving and then advance to whittling.
The reason for not starting with whittling straight away is that this style requires some 3D knowledge and is more dangerous as it is not being held by a holding device. Relief carving will expand your 3-dimensional vision, you can start with some simple relief projects that are easily learned with 4 basic wood carving tools.
Chip carving is much simpler to start and will give you some confidence working with tools, however, if you would like to know how to start with relief carving which is more challenging, check out this article for a complete guide to relief carving.
Without further ado, here are the best projects for beginners in whittling and chip carving
Whittling begginer projects
All of the below can also be done by intermediate and professional woodcarvers too. The reason that they are great for beginners is that you can come up with a simple design for these.
- Small animal figure
- Chess Pieces
- Gnomes/movie characters
- Simple faces
As previously mentioned, it is important that you first try more simple designs for each of these projects, before trying a more complex one. For example, if you want to make an animal figure, going for a cat is much more sensible than a hedgehog.
Chip Carving beginner projects
Chip carving patterns get harder the more complex they are created. There are plenty of chip carving projects out there that you can recreate and simplify or advance on.
We highly recommend not copying a chip carving pattern 1:1 and adding some personal touch to it. This way you will be confident in creating your own patterns!
Check out the video above that shows how to create some simple chip carving patterns, that you as a beginner can work on creating.
After you created the pattern you will need to trace it onto the wood. If you don’t know how to do that check out our tutorial How To Trace a Pattern On Wood.
Choosing The Wood For First Carving
If it is your first time carving you are better off with softer wood.
Some kinds of wood are denser and therefore more difficult to carve, others are perfect for beginners, and are of the right density for most wood carving projects
Our favorite kinds of wood for beginners are:
- European lime
- Yellow pine
It is very important you don’t pick something very difficult to carve for your first projects such as cherry wood. While it has a very inviting color and is good for some projects in the future, you should start with something easier.
How To Wood Carve With a Knife
Most likely your first few projects will only involve caving with a carving knife.
The kind of the knife you use will depend on the style of wood carving you decided to try out first, whittling knives and chip carving knives are quite different, however, there are some basic things you need to know before starting with either.
The first thing you should do is learn the 4 basic cuts as it is a good way to get a feel for wood carving.
The 4 basic cuts are:
- Push cut
- V cut
- Stop cut
- Paring cut
Pay attention to the direction of the grain when you are practicing these cuts, the grain reacts differently depending on which way it is cut
The V cut (and curved V cut) will be the most useful of the four to practice if you want to enhance your abilities in chip carving, while the push cut is very important to be good at if you are whittling and planning on creating figures in the future.
Whatever you are planning to do, these 4 cuts are the most basic approach to chip carving, and your very first step to learning the art.
First Time Tips
After you practice some techniques and you want to create your first project that you find most interesting, you will find the result not being perfect from the first try, but be sure that with a couple of attempts, as you get a feel for the wood and knife things will start taking shape.
The most important tip you should definitely know is:
A good cutting technique will leave the wood clean after you cut it, as well as make the cut significantly easier.
There are some things you may or may not already know that should help fasten your learning curve. So here are our top 5 tips for your very first wood carving:
- Your knife has to be sharp. A sharp knife is easier and safer to work with.
- Hold your knife correctly for the best technique
- Have a stable surface to work on
- Make sure you are following the necessary safety precautions
- Plan out your work, don’t freestyle just yet
Now there is nothing stopping you from creating your first wood carving project. It is just a matter of actually getting the things you need and spending a few hours to get your wood carving well done.
Safety is very important especially if you are a beginner in wood carving. You will be working with extremely sharp blades that will cut you if you are not careful.
To begin with, get some protective equipment such as Kevlar gloves (read our article on safety for a full list of options). As well as follow read through the following list of safety measures and make sure to follow them.
- Use a cut resistance glove on your non-dominant hand (where you hold the wood) It may not be too comfortable but it will save you from an injury
- Make sure the cutting edge is facing away from you, this is a very common mistake. Don’t push on the knife unless you are sure the sharp edge is facing the wood and not your thumb, especially when doing the push cut
- Stay concentrated when carving, don’t take your mind off too much while you’re still starting out
- Keep your thumb on the knife or on the workpiece. If it is loose and not touching anything you can cut yourself by accident.
- Only carve in the “away from you” direction you are facing when without supervision. While there are some cuts that are made towards yourself that are relatively safe, it’s best if you have someone nearby who knows what they are doing to correct you in case you are not doing it safely.
- Make sure your materials are held securely, this is important
Now that we are done with the safety tips, let’s get into the exciting part of the article.
Finishing a Wood Carving
If you are unfamiliar with what a wood carving finish is, it is a layer of protection that makes your wood carving finished. It can be anything from wax to oil, to lacquer e.t.c. If you’d like to find out more about wood carving finishes, read our article How To Finish a Wood Carving – 5 Different ways
Finishing a wood carving is not something you should necessarily worry about from your first day. Most likely your first few carving projects will be only for practice and will not be displayed anywhere.
However, once you made something that you would like to keep, you should give it the finish it deserves as this way your wood carving will have a “completed” look and be protected from the moisture and other factors that can damage it over time.
The most simple way is to do it is with a wax finish. Here is what you should do:
- Sand the wood or scrape it
- Burnish (optional)
- Remove wood dust
- Apply the wax
- Let the wax dry
- Buff and repeat
For a full toturial of this process you can click here
How to Improve In Wood Carving
Wood carving is a learnable skill, it takes a good amount of practice but you don’t need to be a professional with 30 years of experience to be relatively good at carving especially if you only take it as a hobby.
There are a few ways that one could go from beginner to an intermediate student in wood carving:
- 1:1 Wood carving lessons
- Group lessons
- Online courses
- Books from wood carving professionals
- Most importantly, practice
This list is in the order from most expensive to least expensive, but they are all reliable ways to learn how to wood carve.
1:1 lessons are by far the most expensive way, but it makes sense to have a few private lessons to fasten the learning curve as there are probably a lot of questions that you may want to clarify before you jump into wood carving.
If you look online or ask around you will most likely find a local woodcarver somewhere not too far from where you live, if wood carving is more or less popular in the region that you live in, group lessons also take place, they are one of the best ways to learn wood carving as group lessons have the best price for the value you receive.
Online lessons and books are a great way to enhance your understanding and abilities in wood carving. Some are free, others cost a few dollars, but overall everything is fairly affordable.
If there is a book that every beginner should read, it is the one you can see to the left. Highly recommended!
The most important in wood carving is of course practice. With all the knowledge in the world, you will not be able to achieve the heights that practicing will give you. Try to wood carve a few hours every week, and within a year you will see how much you have improved and learned by yourself.